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Planning your Heaphy Tack trip

Sunset at the Heaphy River mouth

So you’ve decided to walk the Heaphy Track—you’re in for an epic adventure on New Zealand's Great Walk with the widest variety of landscapes! With a bit of planning first, you’ll be on your way with no worries at all. I will walk you through some easy steps to planning a multi-day trip on the Heaphy Track, from deciding on your Heaphy huts to your transport logistics to your packing and food preparation.

Estimate how long the walk will take you

How hard is the Heaphy Track? Well, historically Golden Bay Māori travelled to the West Coast via the Gouland Downs and Heaphy River. In the 1860s, gold prospectors developed the route to pack-track standards, so although it’s the longest Great Walk at 78km, it has a pretty gentle gradient throughout. The track's surface is generally good—alot of work has been done on the surface since mountain-biking was permitted in the last decade. But it can be uneven in places for bikers (particularly between Brown Hut and Perry Saddle) and has the occasional, slightly muddy patch. DOC recommends 4-6 days walking, or 2-3 on a mountain bike. So how long will it take you ... and where should you stay?

Hiking at a reasonable pace, and carrying light packs, my partner and I average about 4km/hr. We'll stop for 5-10 minutes when we feel we need a break, (every hour or so) and take no more than a 30 minute lunch. If you haven’t done much tramping before, have a practice run—fill your pack with what you intend to take, and go for a 10 or 20km day hike. See how you feel and how long it takes you, and think about how it would be for the other members in your party.

Choosing your huts or campsites

Will you make it a 4, or 5 day trip? Which way will you walk or bike the track? The track works well in either direction and there are advantages each way. If you start in Golden Bay you get most of the climbing out of the way in the first day, however, your pack will be heaviest. The direction you go may be influenced by the bunks or campsites available. Also, before deciding, check out my 7 must-dos when tramping the Heaphy Track.

Trampers

Don‘t try to walk the Heaphy in 2 nights unless you are really fit and experienced.

  • 4 days/3 nights: Most trampers will aim for 3 nights on the Heaphy track—Staying at Perry Saddle, James McKay and Heaphy Huts. If you want time to explore the Gouland Down, swap James McKay with Saxon Hut
  • 5 days/4 nights: Allows a more leisurely trip with two short days to explore the caves or climb Mt Perry. Stay at Perry Saddle, Saxon, James McKay and Heaphy Huts

Beginning at Kohaihai, just reverse the above hut recommendations.

Negotiating boardwalks near James MacKay Hut

Bikers

Some mission-oriented riders plough through in a single day but that doesn’t really do the Heaphy Track justice and in middle of winter can be a real challenge due to limited daylight hours. I recommend 2 to 3 days (1-2 nights) to really appreciate the full Heaphy bike experience.

  • 2 days/1 night: Stay at Saxon or James McKay Hut 
  • 3 days/2 nights: The best option for less experienced bikers or riders who want to immerse themselves in the experience. Stay at Perry Saddle and Heaphy Huts

Once you've planned your huts (or campsites), check there are bunks or campsites available to book online with the Department of Conservation.

Plan your Heaphy transport

Line up your transport before you book your huts because the Heaphy is one of the more challenging tracks to get to and from as the two road-ends are 450km apart!

There are a number of transport options: you can get your car driven to the other end of the track, you can ride a shuttle or bus service between west coast and Nelson, and Nelson to Golden Bay in peak times.

Or you can make it easy for yourself with Golden Bay Air’s Heaphy Track transport for walkers and bikers which include flights and/or shuttles from Wellington, Nelson and Takaka to Brown Hut and a scenic flight back from Karamea—often giving you a bird’s-eye view of the Heaphy Track to complete your adventure!

Packing light for your Heaphy tramp

For some ideas about how to pack light for the Heaphy, check out my What gear to pack on the Heaphy and Abel Tasman Tracks and Tips to save weight on the Heaphy and Abel Tasman Tracks.

Final preparations

In the days leading up to your trip, know what weather and tides to expect. I recommend Metservice national park forecast for Kahurangi National Park. Windy and metvuw are great weather forecast sites, well worth consulting. Also, check the DOC Heaphy Track site for full track details and advisory warnings.

Planning is certainly key to an epic Heaphy Track experience: once you’ve got your logistics, gear and game-plan sorted, you’re in for an unforgettable walk through landscape in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Enjoy!

For more information check out our Complete Guide to the Heaphy Track.

Simon Thomas is a Wellington-based writer who has biked and walked dozens of back-country tracks in New Zealand and abroad—including the Heaphy and Abel Tasman Tracks.

The Milky Way over James Mackay Hut
 
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